You are on page 1of 6

Order Code RS21930

Updated March 10, 2006

CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web

Ethanol Imports and the
Caribbean Basin Initiative
Brent D. Yacobucci
Specialist in Energy Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division


Fuel ethanol consumption has grown significantly in the past several years, and it
will continue to grow with the establishment of a renewable fuels standard in the Energy
Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58). This standard requires U.S. gasoline to contain a
minimum amount of renewable fuel, including ethanol.
Most of the U.S. market is supplied by domestic refiners producing ethanol from
American corn. However, imports do play a role, albeit small, in the U.S. market. One
reason for the relatively small role is a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol.
This tariff offsets an economic incentive of 51 cents per gallon for the use of ethanol in
gasoline. However, to promote development and stability in the Caribbean region and
Central America, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) allows the imports of most
products, including ethanol, duty-free. While many of these products are produced in
CBI countries, ethanol entering the United States under the CBI is generally produced
elsewhere and reprocessed in CBI countries for export to the United States. The U.S.-
Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would maintain this duty-free
treatment and set specific allocations for imports from Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Duty-free treatment of CBI ethanol has raised concerns, especially as the market for
ethanol has the potential for dramatic expansion under P.L. 109-58. This report will be
updated as events warrant.

In the United States, fuel ethanol is largely domestically produced. A value-added
product of agricultural commodities, mainly corn, it is used as a gasoline additive and as
an alternative to gasoline. To promote its use, ethanol-blended gasoline is granted a
significant tax incentive. However, this incentive does not recognize point of origin, and
there is a tariff on most imported fuel ethanol to offset the exemption. But a limited
amount of ethanol may be imported under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) duty-free,
even if most of the steps in the production process were completed in other countries.
This duty-free import of ethanol has raised concerns, especially as U.S. demand for
ethanol has been growing. Further, duty-free imports from these countries, especially

Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Costa Rica and El Salvador, have played a role in the development of the U.S.-Central
America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

Fuel Ethanol
Ethanol is an alcohol fuel produced from the fermentation of simple sugars.1 Most
ethanol in the United States is produced from corn. In other countries, sugarcane or other
plants are common feedstocks. In the United States, the increased demand for corn leads
to higher income for U.S. corn farmers. Ethanol is usually blended in gasoline (a mixture
called “gasohol”) to increase octane, improve combustion, and extend gasoline stocks.
Currently, about 1% to 2% of total U.S. gasoline demand is actually met by ethanol, and
roughly 30% of U.S. gasoline contains some ethanol.

U.S. ethanol is generally produced and consumed in the Midwest, close to where the
corn feedstock is produced. The main steps to ethanol production are as follows:

! The feedstock (e.g., corn) is processed to separate fermentable sugars.
! Yeast is added to ferment the sugars.
! The resulting alcohol is distilled.
! Finally, the distilled alcohol is dehydrated to remove any remaining

This final step — dehydration — is at the heart of the issue over ethanol imports from the
CBI, as discussed below.

Ethanol Imports
According to the United States International Trade Commission, roughly one half
of all fuel ethanol imports to the United States came through CBI countries between 1999
and 2003 (see Figure 1).2 In 2004, imports from Brazil to the United States grew
dramatically, but in 2005, CBI imports again represented more than half of all U.S.
ethanol imports. In total, imports currently play a relatively small role in the U.S. ethanol
market. Total ethanol consumption in 2005 was approximately 3.9 billion gallons,
whereas imports totaled 180 million gallons, or about 5%. Imports from the CBI totaled
approximately 2.7%.

One reason for the limited amount imported — even though, in some cases,
production costs for ethanol in foreign countries are significantly lower than in the United
States — is a most-favored-nation tariff of 54 cents per gallon.3 In many cases, this tariff
negates lower production costs in other countries. For example, by some estimates,

For more information on ethanol, see CRS Report RL30369, Fuel Ethanol: Background and
Public Policy Issues, by Brent D. Yacobucci.
It should be noted that between 1999 and 2003, Saudi Arabia was the largest exporter to the
United States of ethanol. However, this ethanol is synthetic (produced from fossil fuels) and does
not qualify for the tax incentives for ethanol-blended fuel. Therefore, ethanol from Saudi Arabia
is used as an industrial feedstock and is subject to different tariff treatment than fuel ethanol.
Technically, the tariff is 14.27 cents per liter, which is equal to 54 cents per gallon.

Brazilian production costs are 40% to 50% lower than in the United States.4 With U.S.
wholesale ethanol prices ranging from $1.80 to $2.06 per gallon from January to March
2006, the tariff presents a significant barrier to imports.5

Figure 1. Annual Ethanol Imports to the United States

Source: U.S. International Trade Commission, Interactive Tariff and Trade DataWeb, at [http://dataweb.], accessed March 9, 2006.

A key motivation for the establishment of the tariff was to offset a tax incentive for
ethanol-blended gasoline (“gasohol”).6 This incentive is currently valued at 51 cents per
gallon of pure ethanol used in blending. Unless imports enter the U.S. duty-free, the tariff
effectively negates the incentive for those imports.

Ethanol and the CBI
As Congress noted in the Customs and Trade Act of 1990, the Caribbean Basin
Initiative (CBI) was established in 1983 to promote “a stable political and economic
climate in the Caribbean region.”7 As part of the initiative, duty-free status is granted to
a large array of products from beneficiary countries, including fuel ethanol under certain
conditions. If produced from at least 50% local feedstocks (e.g., ethanol produced from

“NCGA’s Adams Addresses World Energy Crisis at ACE Meeting,” NCGA News, August 16,
2004; Kevin Diaz, “Cargill Takes Heat Over Ethanol Import Plan,” Star Tribune, July 2, 2004.
Chemical Week Associates, “Octane Week Price Report,” Octane Week, various issues, January
2006 to March 2006.
U.S. General Accounting Office, Fuel Ethanol: Imports from Caribbean Basin Initiative
Countries, April 1989. For more information on the excise tax exemption, see CRS Report 98-
435, Alcohol Fuels Tax Incentives, by Salvatore Lazzari.
P.L. 101-382, §202; 19 U.S.C. 2701 note: congressional findings.

sugarcane grown in the CBI beneficiary countries), ethanol may be imported duty-free.8
If the local feedstock content is lower, limitations apply on the quantity of duty-free
ethanol. Nevertheless, up to 7% of the U.S. market may be supplied duty-free by CBI
ethanol containing no local feedstock.9 In this case, hydrous (“wet”) ethanol produced in
other countries, historically Brazil or European countries, can be shipped to a dehydration
plant in a CBI country for reprocessing.10 After the ethanol is dehydrated, it is imported
duty-free into the United States. Currently, imports of dehydrated ethanol under the CBI
are far below the 7% cap (approximately 3% in 2005). For 2005, the cap was about 240
million gallons,11 wheras about 100 million gallons were imported under the CBI in that

Dehydration plants are currently operating in Jamaica, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and
Trinidad and Tobago.12 Jamaica and Costa Rica were the two largest exporters of fuel
ethanol to the United States from 1999 to 2003. (In 2004, direct imports from Brazil
exceeded imports from all other countries combined.)13 In spring and summer of 2004,
it was reported that a major U.S. ethanol producer and a major petroleum company had
announced possible plans to construct new dehydration plants in El Salvador and
Panama.14 The plants could produce 60 million gallons per year and between 50 and 100
million gallons per year, respectively. It is expected that in both cases, the hydrous
ethanol would be produced in Brazil. If the plants were constructed and operated at full
capacity, and if all of the ethanol were exported to the United States, it would lead to a
significant increase in U.S. imports of CBI ethanol. However, these proposals were met
with criticism from corn growers, other U.S. ethanol producers, and some Members of
Congress. Critics argue that expansion of duty-free imports from the CBI would
undermine the domestic U.S. ethanol industry.15 Despite criticisms in the United States,
a new dehydration facility began production in Trinidad and Tobago in September 2005.16

Duty-free ethanol imports have also played a role in discussions over the U.S.-
Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).17 Under this agreement signed by the

P.L. 99-514 §423; 19 U.S.C. 2703 note: ethyl alcohol and mixtures thereof for fuel use.
U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Hearing on Fuel Ethanol
Imports from Caribbean Basin Initiative Countries, April 25, 1989.
69 Federal Register 76956.
Petrojam, Ltd., Petrojam Ethanol Limited - Alcohol Sources.
U.S. International Trade Commission, Interactive Tariff and Trade DataWeb, at [http://]. Accessed March 9, 2006.
The two companies are Cargill and ChevronTexaco. Rachel Gantz, “Reaction to Bill to Close
CBI ‘Loophole’ Met With Some Concern,” Renewable Fuel News, August 2, 2004.
Rachel Gantz, “NCGA Troubled by Report Cargill May Import Ethanol to U.S.,” Renewable
Fuel News, May 17, 2004.
This project has received particular scrutiny from some critics because its construction was
financed through a loan insured by the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
For more information on CAFTA, see CRS Report RL31870, The Dominican Rebublic-Central

Bush Administration and the participating countries, specific allocations (of the 7% duty-
free cap for CBI ethanol) are set aside for Costa Rica and El Salvador. These allocations
effectively limit the amount of fuel that other CBI countries can import duty-free. Costa
Rica’s allocation is 31 million gallons per year, while El Salvador was granted an initial
allocation of approximately 6.6 million gallons per year, increasing by roughly 1.3 million
gallons in each subsequent year. However, El Salvador’s allocation may not exceed 10%
of the total CBI allocation (or 0.7% of the U.S. market). The agreement was signed on
May 28, 2004. Congress approved the agreement in 2005, and implementing legislation
was signed by President Bush on August 2, 2005 (P.L. 109-53). As both countries
exceeded their allocations in 2005, the ultimate effects of the allocations is unclear.

Growing U.S. Ethanol Market
The U.S. ethanol market has grown dramatically over the past several years.
Between 1990 and 2005, U.S. ethanol consumption increased from about 900 million
gallons per year to 3.9 billion gallons per year. Much of this growth has resulted from
Clean Air Act requirements that gasoline in areas with the worst ozone pollution contain
an oxygenate, such as ethanol. Further, there is growing concern that methyl tertiary butyl
ether (MTBE) — ethanol’s chief competitor in the oxygenate market — is contaminating
groundwater.18 Therefore, several states have acted to ban or limit the use of MTBE.
This has led to even faster growth in the ethanol market.

Partially because of the concerns over MTBE, there was a move to amend the Clean
Air Act to eliminate the oxygenate requirement. To replace the requirement, a renewable
fuels standard (RFS) was proposed. An RFS requires that gasoline sold in the United
States contain a renewable fuel, such as ethanol. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L.
109-58) established an RFS requiring the use of 4.0 billion gallons of renewable fuel in
2006, increasing to 7.5 billion gallons in 2012. As most of this requirement will likely
be met by ethanol, the RFS could lead to nearly a doubling of the U.S. ethanol market.
While domestic producers anticipate greater demand for their product, they are also
concerned that duty-free ethanol imports through the CBI could dramatically increase, to
their detriment.

Congressional Action
Some Members of Congress have expressed concern over duty-free imports of
dehydrated ethanol that originates in Brazil or other countries. Because of this concern,
bills were introduced in the 108th Congress to amend the CBI provisions on ethanol. S.
2762 (Grassley) would have lowered the cap on allowable duty-free imports of dehydrated
ethanol. Instead of the existing cap of 7% of the U.S. market (about 240 million gallons
in 2005), S. 2762 would have established a cap of 90 million gallons. Amending the cap
would have affected the ethanol provisions of CAFTA. S. 2762 was introduced on July
22, 2004, and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), by J. F. Hornbeck.
For more information on MTBE, see CRS Report RL32787, MTBE in Gasoline: Clean Air and
Drinking Water Issues, by James E. McCarthy and Mary Tiemann.

S. 2769 (Daschle) would have prohibited the use of imported ethanol to any
renewable fuels standard. Currently, about 5% of U.S. demand is met by imported fuel
ethanol, and much of this ethanol is not covered by CBI (or other trade agreements, such
as NAFTA) and is thus subject to the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff. S. 2769 was introduced
on July 22, 2004, and was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works

Although some stakeholders are concerned over increased ethanol imports and their
effect on the U.S. industry, others believe that tariffs on imported ethanol should be
eliminated entirely. They argue that increased use of ethanol, regardless of its origin,
would further displace gasoline consumption. They also argue that inexpensive imported
ethanol would help mitigate any fuel price increases from the renewable fuels standard.
In the 109th Congress, H.R. 4409 (Kingston) would eliminate the tariff for all fuel ethanol,
among other provisions. This bill has been referred to various House committees.

With growing demand for ethanol, there is increased interest in foreign imports.
Because ethanol from CBI countries is granted duty-free status, there is the possibility that
imports of dehydrated ethanol will grow because of this avenue provided in the law.
While CBI countries have not yet reached their quota for ethanol refined in other countries
and dehydrated in the Caribbean, CBI imports have increased over the past few years.
CBI imports have the potential to increase significantly over the next few years, especially
as the domestic market grows under the renewable fuels standard. Low-cost ethanol
imports could have an advantage over domestically produced ethanol, which could
undermine the competitive position of the U.S. ethanol industry and American corn
growers. However, the U.S. ethanol industry has grown significantly in the past several
years, while the CBI’s share of the U.S. market has stayed relatively stable.